No Rights Update in View as Adam Silver Preps for NBA Finals Opener

In a perfect world, commissioner Adam Silver tonight would tee up his traditional NBA Finals table-setter with an official announcement about the league’s next round of media rights deals, which—in their current embryonic state, anyway—are expected to generate some $76 billion between 2025 and 2036. The world being what it is (which is to say: resolutely imperfect), Silver likely will have to hold back on the NBA’s big reveal until after the Boston Celtics-Dallas Mavericks series wraps later this month.

As much as Silver probably hoped to have the new rights package sorted out in time for the title tilt, the offers that appear to have passed muster with the NBA remain unpapered, and contracts aren’t expected to find their way to the league office until mid-June. With a bid that works out to around $2.6 billion per season, Disney’s ESPN/ABC are a sure thing to retain the NBA’s “A” package of games, which includes the exclusive right to broadcast the Finals, while Amazon’s Prime Video is the favorite to carve out a new streaming showcase. (Given its $1.91 trillion market cap, Amazon’s $1.8 billion annual buy-in is basically a rounding error, representing less than a tenth of a percent of the company’s total value.)

While the Disney and Amazon contracts have yet to land on Silver’s desk, those offers will stick. But as has been the case since the merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery closed in April of 2022, the fate of the NBA’s “B” package is less clearcut.

Having failed to reach a provisional agreement for an extension during a 45-day exclusive negotiating window earlier this spring, Warner Bros. Discovery is the odd man out. League officials are said to be over the moon about Comcast’s bold bid for the secondary TV package, which would see the NBA return to NBC Sports after what amounts to a 23-year hiatus. Little wonder: NBC has pledged an average fee of $2.5 billion a year, an investment that would give the outlet the rights to as many as 100 games per season. NBC plans to air at least half of those games on its eponymous flagship network, with the remainder to be made available via Peacock.

Along with all the bonus dough—NBC’s offer is more than double what WBD pays under its legacy deal with the NBA—the new “B” package is bolstered by the big reach of an over-the-air broadcast network, while the Peacock element falls under the heading of “future-proofing.” As traditional TV usage continues to decline, a hybrid broadcast/streaming strategy provides the sort of flexibility that undoubtedly will come in handy as the new contracts mature.

Again, none of the three offers have been committed to paper, and while NBC now clearly has the upper hand over WBD, we won’t know how all of this shakes out until at least five days after the league’s Board of Governors have accepted Comcast’s official offer. WBD CEO David Zaslav and some of his top lieutenants have been vocal about the company’s right to match any third-party offer, but the contractual language that underpins these claims remains obscure.

If TNT Sports decides to go to the mattresses, the NBA could be in for a protracted legal battle. That said, WBD has never been wholly committed to preserving its decades-long association with the league, with Zaslav notably declaring, “We don’t have to have the NBA” back in November 2022. If Silver was understandably disenchanted by Zaslav’s gambit, the mood at 645 Fifth Ave. became frostier still when WBD execs put in a lowball offer at the close of the spring talks.

While it’s uncertain if Zaslav will decide to pay much, much more for much, much less, one WBD board member, who asked not to be named because negotiations are ongoing, believes a renewal with the NBA in any capacity would likely prove to be a bad call for TNT Sports, given the crumbling economics of the traditional pay-TV bundle. As the tech titans continue to snap up more A-list sports properties, costs have been inflated beyond the point where anyone in traditional media can reliably assess their value—especially in the case of a deal that will remain locked in through the middle of the next decade.

In other words, the deep-pocketed streamers have effectively priced mere mortals like WBD out of a good chunk of the live sports market. And good luck with those long-term projections; with penetration of the old-school cable bundle now down to fewer than 50% of U.S. TV households, the cable carriage fees that were once the envy of the over-the-air broadcasters may not be worth the paper they’re printed on in five years’ time, let alone a dozen.

Which brings us back, as all NBA rights conversations inevitably do, to the fate of Charles Barkley and the rest of the Inside the NBA cast and crew. Sir Charles’ endless grievance tour may prove to be a mere preview of the on-air grumbling in store when he and Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal return next fall for what is increasingly looking like their last hurrah on TNT.

Everyone wants Barkley to suit up for their studio show, and NBC may have the inside track on trying to replicate the Inside the NBA magic in a new facility. (The voluble analyst has known NBCUniversal Media Group chairman Mark Lazarus for nearly a quarter-century.) Barkley says his 10-year, $100 million deal with WBD includes an opt-out clause that would let him bounce if TNT loses the NBA, but the show only works with each of the four stars in place.

Johnson is said to be disinterested in leaving TNT Sports, and without the anchor, the show would likely devolve into the sort of frenzied unpredictability that would likely send NBC Sports higher-ups scrambling for the beta blockers. Replace Johnson with anyone and the inimitable onscreen dynamic that’s been developed over the past 20-plus years is likely to fall apart; witness how abruptly the show’s tone shifts whenever frequent guest Draymond Green sits in with the rest of the tight-knit gang.

Until the contracts are submitted, the WBD angle remains wholly speculative, but as Barkley suggested in a recent media hit, none of the suits seems interested in keeping the Inside the NBA crew up to speed on the company’s NBA-retention strategy. “They’ve done a really sh-tty job of keeping us abreast,” Barkley said last week during an appearance on Jimmy Traina’s podcast for Sports Illustrated. “Just say, ‘hey, guys, we’re in the middle of negotiations. It’s 50-50.’ Just say something.”

Barkley added that Silver’s decision will come down to “what’s best for the owners and players,” before conceding that he doesn’t have a clue as to how things will shake out. “We don’t know anything!” he said. “Yo, just call me and say, ‘Hey, you know what, it’s going good, it’s not going good, kiss my ass.’ If they called and just said, ‘Kiss my ass,’ I’d feel better about that than not hearing anything.”

Barkley went on to add that Zaslav hasn’t made much of an effort to engage with the people and the property that account for nearly 30% of TNT’s annual gross ratings points. “I met him twice,” Barkley told Traina. “I saw him last week at the upfronts. He said hello, and that was it. … I thought he should’ve said something to us when he had us there, to be honest with you, but he didn’t. There were crowds around so I didn’t want to make a scene, but I thought he should have said something.”

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